Slowly, footsteps crunch, going chunky-chunk chunckity-chunk, through the snow, like the soft drip-drop of rain from a gutter after a spring storm. The chill in the air is tangible enough that I could cut it with a knife- well, if knives could slice through solid ice. It's like it has suspended itself in midair, because all is still. The trees never wave, no call of the wild is heard, and the blanket of ice tied to the pond's shore makes no crackle.
The grinding snow is all that Damen and I can hear. In the stillness, it feels like we're the only living things for miles.
Well, he is the only living thing around for miles. Beside him, I float as a big blob of solid plasma, walking with him around rocks and brush, even though I am capable of passing right through them. The sun has set, and everything is caught in a dark twilight blue mixed with glittering white of the snow, heightening the hush, and tinting my transparent skin ink-blue.
It's a frosty night in the middle of December. Anyone else would pass it by unwinding by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate and cheesy Christmas soap operas, oblivious to the wintry world outside.
But for us…?
Damen and I- well, I, mostly, being someone who enjoyed a fantasy evening on occasion with the boy that my heart most desires- are looking for adventure; for someplace unknown in the woods beyond.
Letting his boots sink into the snow, Damen steps through a clearing in the trees. I follow him, leaving the pond and the wide-open behind for the dim, musty-smelling trees touched by the season. A polar breeze blows some dead leaves our way, tumbling across the icy ground in a swirling dance.
Damen, nor I, speaks while we tread forward, coming to the creek that runs across the entire expanse of forest. Once running so freely, the water is trapped under a sheet of ice, speckled with droplets of snow and sopping, dried leaves. It's tremendously long, but still thin enough for us to cross with a fallen tree trunk. Simple enough to do, but Damen and I have a ways to go before we can find our real tree-bridge, where, like always, we would cross the border from the ordinary, to an uncanny place only we knew of.
Damen strides with long, anxious steps down the bank. When I jog- or fly?- across the soggy ground to him, he stands next to a thick and gnarly tree trunk. It looks like the long arm of a fallen tree monster, with limbs twisting and turning in a dense jumble on the end. The bark is rotting to an almost black color, but the circumference of the tree is adventurous enough to climb to cross the creek. Damen plants his feet firmly on the ground, not caring to sweep away the tiny bits of bark from his ragged gloves, before he climbs on top. The trunk is surprisingly strong, although it does waver in the slightest with his weight. I grin widely, watching the beautiful figure of my love move like a swan with such precision and calmness.
I follow him onto the tree, stepping light as a feather to the wood. Then, I find that my eyes are glued to the watery ice beneath me. Somehow, I try to watch for my reflection, rippling in the patches of melting snow, just as I finally reach out to take the limbs at the end. Some part of me is still startled to not have seen my mop of dark hair or my pale face in the water, but in remembering my purpose, I lightly move my feet to the ground, and ghastly hands to the gnarly branches.
And for a fraction of a second, the cold, hard rock where my heart used to be is just slightly warmed, like a match was shoved down my throat and put there. My concentration wavers…
My foot suddenly gives way through the trunk, and in reacting to the freezing water just about to swallow me up, I lurch myself forward with an inhuman leap, and finally come back to good footing on the solid ground.
I glance back at Damen, his strong figure standing tall on the broken tree-bridge. But with the break in the end, he is beginning to wobble, and while he creeps across the creek, the tree cracks apart even more the further that he goes. At last, it crumbles into a mess of solid and rotted wood in the cracking ice, just as he makes a long jump onto the ground.
"Still intact?" I ask him, patting his shoulder teasingly.
Damen doesn't answer me with words. Instead, he reaches into his jacket pocket, and reveals a digital camera, encased in a dark red sleeve. "Close call," he says, "but a great picture." He turns it on, and the lens buzzes outward. With a click of a button, a picture of the fallen tree appears on the screen, and he grins briefly before moving away from the creek, camera still in hand.
Through our walk in the forest, Damen and I share very few glances, much less a word, but I still feel the contentedness in the air. Damen has always been a very musical, artistic person who could see the beauty in everything, just like my best friend, Scarlet Kensington, who pretty much shares the same personality with Damen. His new pleasure has been turned to photography, and not too surprisingly, he is very good at it. Nothing seems to give him much happiness besides playing his guitar, and capturing everything at its most beautiful. Over the summer, while I had been sitting with him, he captured a moment where, as he was sitting under a tree, he had slammed a branch with his swinging arm, and little white flowers fell around him. He was lucky enough to get the picture just when two flowers fell over his bare, sandaled foot, and formed the sweet shape of a heart. To this day, it remains one of my favorite of his pictures, and perhaps one of her most beautiful. Because, when I looked hard enough at the picture once it was printed, I noticed that the two little flowers had fallen over my hands, landing in their shape just when Damen snapped the button.
It…it was almost like he was capturing the moment of me holding his heart in my hands. Afterwards, he had felt his hand along the bench, and kept it where my knee was next to him. And for many blissful moments, I believed he actually knew I was there.
It soon comes to be dark, but Damen and I still see the lights of Hawthorne in the distance. Up to this point, even in the summer, I don't think we've ever come this far through the woods. Of course, the colorful flowers and green trees were pretty, but the mysteriousness of the forest when it's covered up in white stirs something in the imagination.
But then, when I glance back once more, the lights are barely visible, with the trees and the dimness that has begun to fall around us.
Despite the dark, the lights of cars rushing by on the highway are enough to light our way. But suddenly, Damen steps in front of him, and slips, falling on his behind with an oomph!
Peering carefully into the space, I notice he is sitting down, but slowly starting to gather himself. He breathes strongly upon gaining his footing, but I'm still out on the ice with him in an instant to check if he's still okay.
That's when a great big rush of lights comes on the highway, cutting through the trees and illuminating the discovery unfolding before us.
Damen and I are standing in front of a huge lake of ice. It's about as large as a school playground, surrounded by thin trees that sparkle, as if shimmering in gowns of glass.
Another round of lights comes, and more ice-covered trees show themselves, speckled throughout the space like flowers on a little hill. And glancing to my left, I notice that the ice extends down that way, winding in between fallen logs and tiny tree-sprouts, also surrounded by a wall of frozen trees.
Within the next few moments, everything around us is cast in a silver glow, making the snow look a bright, powdery blue. Overhead, the moon is hovering among the stars, nearly perfectly round, but just not quite. Surrounded by a hazy blaze, it looks like a rocky snowball, luminous with winter all around it. They are floating so high above the trees that suddenly, the forest looks a lot less towering, with the moonlight raining down between the branches like silver rain. The combined glows sparkles on the ice, just like the moon does in summer on an ocean. But there is no rippling of water, or the gurgle of melting snow.
Within the forest, in this moment, the world- so touched by winter- is all ours.
"Whoa, look at that moon!" Damen says, lifting his camera for a snapshot. "That's way cool!"
"Yes," I agree wholeheartedly. "Kinda reminds you of those pictures you see on the front of a children's Christmas book."
Damen doesn't say anything as he observes his picture.
Well, he can have that. Me, I've become far too enraptured with this strange new place we've found. I know that Damen and I have always loved to explore these woods, but even in the winter, finding someplace new and far from the norm had never felt so satisfying. With everything so dim and silvery in the light of the moon, it doesn't really feel like we're on Earth anymore. Even I, who have known strange but wonderful places in the afterlife, can say that this is quite beautiful. We can't even see the lights of town anymore, because the branches have bent their snow-covered limbs to leave no trace of existence beyond the forest. When Damen and I crossed the creek, we truly arrived in a world completely mismatched from ours.
I take a step on the thick ice, and my foot slips very easily. It's almost as though my shoes have transformed into skates, and I can skid across with ease. Which, to my great childlike joy, I can.
Within seconds, I abandon myself as a dead seventeen-year-old with any normal mind or conscience. I slide in and around the trees with great laughter building in my throat, but I have to suppress it when a bitter-cold breeze puffs through the trees and through my ghostly body like I'm solidly naked, and I can feel the wind on every inch of my skin. It rapidly blows some loose, powdery snow from the tree branches, dancing on the wind's back, and sparkling like the little snow fairies from "The Nutcracker".
I'm so struck in a momentary wonder that the snow blows past me all too quickly. I'm suddenly hoping that it will happen again for Damen to maybe capture on his camera. There's no doubt about it- this place has me caught inside its mysterious, wonder-filled hands, and, suddenly, when I think of him, I glow with something new. I briefly close my eyes and let the wind just slightly take me around this new place, only wondering if Damen feels the same kind of wonder that I feel it has. And just then, my feet seem to skate just a bit faster than before.
Once I can open my eyes, I watch Damen skidding slowly in between the trees, going into that little narrow path of ice concealed by a wall of silver trees. He has his camera in his gloved hand, flinging it to and fro as he seems to capture the majesty of his surroundings. I follow him, observing what he is capturing on film.
Soon enough, he turns around, and slips his camera back into its case, into his pocket.
While I alternate feet in slipping and sliding forward, he leads me back to the clearing, where yet another cloud of snow has blown from the branches, glimmering in its fairy-like beauty.
"It's like…magic," Damen says, chuckling to himself.
I turn to look at him. "Magic" is always a word to describe the world when Damen and I are together. "Cool" or "really, really sweet" would suffice, but neither can hold a candle to how I feel right now.
I press further into the clearing, and Damen skids aimlessly around for a time, looking all around him once more. While he is going about, I'm still briefly stuck on his description of this special part of the woods. A warm glow comes to me when I replay the moment of when, for a second, there was a sparkle in his eyes. I hadn't seen that since the first time I saw him smile at me at the Fall Ball over a year ago, after I had just died choking on a gummy bear- when he'd asked me to be his Physics lab partner. But somehow, that little spell over my mind fadeswhen the moonlight flashes in my eyes and I'm moving on the ice again.
The scenery takes its time to come even more alive in my eyesight, and the longer that I move around, the more I can spot. Even after spending so long here, it never fails to impress me seeing what Damen and I discovered. It's so far away from what we know that it only fuels my imagination more, and at this time of year, with sleigh-loads of joy to go around, it's only fitting to be here.
A tune begins to hum in my mind, and before I can stop myself, I'm singing to the tune of "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!", and the music from Dean Martin's version follows me everywhere.
But then, my ears are hit by a wave of sound that almost makes me skate right through a row of trees. Damen has turned on his iPod, listening to the joyful words sung about the magic of snow.
"Oh, yeah," I say, and suddenly, I am moving across the ice, touching Damen's hand, and singing along with his music.
I smile at him as I sing out from my heart, but I quickly look ahead before I can crash Damen into a tree. I stumble a bit before regaining my balance, but am still half-shocked and half-relieved to see Damen going along with what I'm doing!
Then an idea comes to me.
"Damen, try this!" I call on a spur of the moment, swinging myself around a tree. My hand grabs hold of the spindly trunk and I toss myself in a circle. Damen doesn't follow me, but he is still swishing his shoes on the ice, towards the tree I am twirling around. Suddenly, my hand accidentally brushes his soft face, and he reaches up a hand to sweep his short bangs out of his face.
"Whoa," he whispers, apparently having felt my touch. Unexpectedly, he grins, and then gently swings himself around my tree, chuckling softly. I laugh with him, trying to swing fast enough for him to not catch up to me. But by the fourth time, he envelopes me in his toasty athletic jacket, and my laughter instantly rises to a huge crescendo, sounding almost like a little girl's laugh.
Damen had always been one of the most popular guys in our school years. And since childhood, well, he never seemed to lose that bright-eyed, wide-toothed grin that could send anyone with a heart into smiling fits themselves. And now, as he was going through the trees and sliding on the ice like a natural skater, it was hard to believe he'd be nineteen soon; nearly a year and a quarter since he'd first kissed me at the Fall Ball.
I'm brought out of my reverie however, when Damen accidentally swings by and passes through my side, scattering my ghostly body like white smoke until it reassembles itself, like proteins in a cell. I'm not annoyed. Instead, I chase him around the ice, skidding after him almost as wildly as Tom and Jerry. Finally, I reach him, and extending my arm, I tag him.
Unfortunately, my lighthearted concentration must have tagged him too hard and with that one push, he and I go tumbling across the ice. We fall forward into the snow, going head-first into the brisk ground quickly.
Damen snaps his head upward, swiping the snow from his hair, but the snow has dampened his skin, making him look like he's crying in the moonlight.
"Hold still," I tell him, and gently concentrating with my hand, I wipe it across his face to clear the melting snow, careful not to push too hard, otherwise I might actually freeze the water to his face.
Clearing his throat, he shakes his head, and takes a deep breath, smiling as if he's going to laugh. I grin back at him, as he is looking right into my face.
"No problem," I say, saying or doing nothing else while he continues to stare at me.
But then, there comes a great vibrating in Damen's jacket pocket. I jump slightly, but finally manage to obtain tranquility when Damen pulls out his cell phone, which is ringing with a text message.
I lean over to peek at the message, while Damen's forehead creases with thought. I stand up from the snow, and take Damen's free hand as he starts to get to his feet again. It doesn't surprise me when I notice disappointment in his expression as he follows me out of the clearing.
For the moment, I'm a little sad myself that we have to leave the clearing, because, in all truths, I hadn't had that much fun since being able to live inside of another person's body. Well, then again, nothing could be any more special than being with Damen.
Trudging my feet through the snow, but not leaving any footprints, I slow my pace so that I'm walking right next to Damen. I cling to his side like a ghastly snowflake, inching just close enough for me to invade the inside of his athletic jacket. It's warm with his body heat, and I shiver in feeling just that bit of warmth.
Closing my eyes again, I sense that same rock in my chest heating up like a fire, and it's suddenly not that cold anymore.
I can even feel Damen's arm closing around me, just brushing against the small of my back- just the place I always wanted him to touch.
Until it inches past, and clings to his side, leaving me impaled through his arm and nothing more than a breath of cool air beside him.
We're coming close to the end of the woods.
I glance up at him, feeling like I should try and say something. But, I know it will not work.
I'm one to pride myself on self-reliance, so I decide on a whole new tactic that would make me just as happy as if he were actually holding me.
I close my eyes one final time, and breath out a hollow breath. My feet can't feel the numb cold of the snow anymore, but I can still feel Damen's body clutched in my arms. Flying alongside him, I lean my head towards his, and plant a sweet, long kiss on his cold lips.
Then I allow myself to believe that, like me, he is a ghost, awaiting eternal judgment. But for now, there is just us, and I am glad to be there, dead or alive.